| Umberto Eco: Stands corrected
New Delhi, Oct. 23: For a pop culture expert committed to better communication worldwide, it was a startling mistake. Ten years ago, Umberto Eco had described the mobile phone as a symbol of social inferiority that would not find wide acceptance.
“One cannot predict future technology,” the global intellectual driven to improving transcultural understanding told an international symposium at the new Alliance Francaise auditorium here today.
Eco had written that only three categories of people needed the cellphone: plumbers, doctors performing liver transplants and adulterers looking to keep their communications secret.
But every five years, the situation changes, the 73-year-old acknowledged. Today, use of the mobile is so widespread that adulterous relations can no longer be kept secret: a wife can easily track a philandering husband. And, the notion of social inferiority no longer holds.
What disturbs him is that two persons speaking on their mobiles may not know where the other one is, but the company providing the service does. “There is always someone who keeps people under control,” Eco said.
Communication and power ' the two subjects dominated a large part of the discourse of the scholar and writer, whom a recent survey in the US had placed second only to Noam Chomsky on a list of the world’s leading public intellectuals.
He gave his opinion of the western discipline of cultural anthropology: people who had “brutally colonised” other people now felt guilty and “tried to understand” them.
But even “to understand one has to interpret”, he said, explaining how one’s own cultural background gets in the way. He cited medieval traveller Marco Polo’s example.
Marco, Eco said, had set out on his travels expecting to find unicorns. When he saw the horned animals around Java, he felt these were different from the medieval Christian traditions describing the animal. Marco was a victim of his “background books”. He tried to compare his experience with “a cognitive pre-existing model”.
So, what Eco and anthropologist Alain Le Pichon of the University of Paris are trying to do is set up the opposite model, with anthropologists from Asian and African countries coming to Europe and interpreting their experiences of European culture. The differences in connotation of the same experiences or phenomena would enrich transcultural understanding.
The objective of the symposium in India is to create a transcultural observatory in this country in collaboration with French Institute de Pondicherry and Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai.
The centre will analyse key words, key concepts and key images arising out of encounters and confrontations between European and Asian cultures.
When Eco ' currently travelling through India ' walked into the auditorium straight from the airport, few had anticipated they were in for an evening of pure delight.
His wore his vast erudition lightly. Wearing a loose, steel-grey jacket and a blue shirt, the chubby professor with a grizzled beard handled the most complex of philosophical or cultural concepts with extraordinary clarity. For an hour or so, he held everyone in thrall with his sparkling wit and profound wisdom.
A semiotician, literary theorist, academic, popular culture maven specialising in the study of James Bond, as well as a fiction writer, Eco astonishes with the range of his creative and intellectual exercise. His murder mystery set in a medieval monastery, The Name of the Rose, has been made into a movie starring Sean Connery.
Today, he chaired a Round Table on Strategies of Acquiring Mutual knowledge. The discussion is the concluding part of the second International Symposium on Reciprocal Knowledge, and will be followed by a panel discussion tomorrow at JNU.
Eco’s programme in Delhi is being hosted by the French Embassy, Delegation of the European Commission to India, Centre de Sciences Humaine, JNU, Goethe Institute/Max Mueller Bhavan and Alliance Francaise, Delhi.